Minding your Female Flora: The Importance of the Vaginal Microbiome
By now you may have heard a thing or two about the gut microbiome, but what you may not know is your vagina also has its own unique microbial ecosystem. While many of us are introduced to the world of the vaginal microbiome through some of the less desirable microbial strains, you’ll be happy to know that when in balance, the majority of vaginal microbes are made up of ‘good guys’, existing in harmony with your body and keeping vaginal health in check.
If there is one thing we have learnt about healthy microbiomes over the years, it’s that balance is key. So, while up until now, you may not have given your vaginal flora much thought, we are here to introduce you this important ecosystem and share ways in which you can help keep it (and your vagina) healthy!
Meet the Lactobacilli Family:
Have you ever wondered - what is normal vaginal flora? Well, let us introduce you to the Lactobacilli family.
This friendly family of beneficial bacteria call the vagina their home and are largely made up of the species L.crispatus and L. gasseri, amongst others. Even though certain species of microbes are common to most females, your exact mix of microbes is unique to you and influenced by your age, ethnicity and lifestyle choices. 
Lactobacilli play an important role in regulating the health of your vagina. They are known for their ability to produce a substance known as lactic acid, which as its name suggests, helps to maintain an acidic pH balance in the vagina. Whilst the words acidic and vagina conjure up images of intense discomfort, a slightly acidic vaginal environment is in fact a good thing, playing the role of keeping less vagina-friendly species of bacteria at bay.
This friendship is definitely one of give and take. While the good bacteria fend off the bad, your body rewards them by providing food to support their growth, and this food (known as glycogen) is produced by your very own vaginal secretions.
Under the right environmental conditions, this symbiotic relationship helps to maintain the health of your vagina by helping to prevent overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and maintain healthy vaginal function. However, like many things female, conditions change frequently, and this can affect microbial balance.
Happy Hormones Make for a Happy (Vaginal) Home:
Female hormone balance plays a significant role in determining the environment of the vaginal canal. The eb and flow of female hormones is driven by the natural changes that come with puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause and everything in between. Each of these life stages can change the local environment of the vagina – and therefore alter the composition of the microbes that grow within it.
For instance, during ovulation, high oestrogen production supports the acidic pH and growth of Lactobacilli bacteria. In contrast, menstruation brings an increase in pH and available food sources, allowing for overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria. These changes explain the increase of dysbiosis that can occur during this time.
Why your Vaginal Flora Matter
The health of the vaginal microbiome is not just a matter for down south but has much further-reaching implications on reproductive health as a whole, with links to placental, breast and foetal microbiomes.
For instance, research has shown that a mothers microbiome can directly impact the composition of baby’s microbiome, which can go on to affect future health outcomes.
How to be a Good Host:
Ultimately, the provider of the resources needed to support a healthy vaginal microbiome is…you. Lifestyle factors that can affect the ‘liveability’ of the vagina include hygiene practices, sexual health, climate, clothing, smoking, alcohol and sugar intake, birth control methods, medication use and more.
Female hygiene products, in particular, can have a significant impact on the balance of vaginal flora. The instinctual desire to keep the vagina ‘clean’ has led an expansive market of female hygiene products, including washes, wipes and creams. The thing is, your vagina is akin to a ‘self-cleaning oven’, thanks to the anti-infective capabilities of the vaginal flora. Using female hygiene products, such as soap for instance, can actually have the opposite of the desired cleaning effect. The use of soap can alter the pH of the vagina, disrupting the important balance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria and contributing to vaginal dysbiosis-related symptoms which are responsible for the ‘unclean’ feeling.
Generally speaking, what keeps you healthy also keeps your vaginal microbiome healthy. By applying the classic rules of a ‘healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle’, you can help support balanced vaginal flora, keep that ‘self-cleaning oven’ doing its thing and your vagina healthy!
Can probiotics help?
An abundance of Lactobacilli bacteria is considered a sign of a healthy vaginal microbiome in the majority of women. Probiotics can assist in supplementing these beneficial strains of bacteria in times of need, helping to support healthy vaginal flora and, of course, a healthy vagina.
Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
 Nunn KL, Forney LJ. Focus: microbiome: unraveling the dynamics of the human vaginal microbiome. The Yale journal of biology and medicine. 2016 Sep;89(3):331.
 Gupta S, Kakkar V, Bhushan I. Crosstalk between vaginal microbiome and female health: a review. Microbial pathogenesis. 2019 Nov 1;136:103696.
 Nader‐Macías ME, De Gregorio PR, Silva JA. Probiotic lactobacilli in formulas and hygiene products for the health of the urogenital tract. Pharmacology Research & Perspectives. 2021 Oct;9(5):e00787.
 Wissel E, Dunn A, Dunlop A. A Narrative Review on Factors Shaping the Vaginal Microbiome: Role of Health Behaviors, Clinical Treatments, and Social Factors. Authorea Preprints. 2020 Oct 5.